There’s a numerical symmetry attached to the Big Ten’s 2024 football schedule, which was unveiled on Thursday afternoon. It was version 63 that became the winner for the 18-team conference, which will stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean next summer.
“Normally, we don’t get out of the late 20s or 30s when it comes to football schedules,” said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten’s chief operating officer. “It just shows the massive amount of balance that we had to look through in terms of geography and travel and then also the competitiveness.
“Also from a numerology perspective, six times three is 18. So I thought that was a unique kind of nod to the fact that we are dealing with a mathematical solution here as opposed to just putting teams up on a board.”
Without divisions for the first time since 2010 and the inaugural campaign for newcomers USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon, the Big Ten’s 129th football season will have several alterations and adjustments. It’s also built for entertainment and excitement.
Here are 10 big topics related to the 2024 schedule release.
Computerized strategy: USC-Michigan
In perhaps the most anticipated game on the 2024 slate, USC will make its Big Ten debut on Sept. 21 at Michigan. It turned out the league was both fortunate and strategic with that matchup.
“It’s a great talking point to say these two historic programs are going to open up in a historic venue, and obviously, one of our TV partners will be thrilled to get that game,” Kenny said. “But we also looked at it in a couple of different points within the schedule.”
Both traditional powers battle other high-profile programs before facing off. The Trojans open Labor Day Sunday (Sept. 1) against LSU in Las Vegas while Michigan plays host to Texas on Sept. 7.
“We felt like through the lens of both individual schedules, it was an equitable outcome in the sense that both had a similar lead-in and ramp-up to get to that game,” Kenny said, “whereas if we dropped it in other portions of the schedule, it skewed too much in favor of one team versus the other.”
With a 14-week season, the Big Ten wanted to lessen travel effects on its four West Coast newcomers and its current 14 programs. With two scheduled byes, all of the newcomers picked up either a bye or a home game following a trip to the Eastern or Central time zones.
“We were fortunate enough that we were 100 percent on that,” Kenny said. “No team in the Pacific time zone and that none of our 18 teams overall have to play road games in back-to-back weeks that cross multiple time zones.
“On the flip side of that, the 14 Eastern and Central time zone schools going west, we were able to work and get eight of those institutions that have a bye coming off of that West Coast trip. Then six have home games coming off those West Coast trips.”
The league was able to make that work involving nonconference games as well. Purdue plays at Oregon State on Sept. 21 and picks up a home game against Nebraska the following week. Indiana travels to UCLA on Sept. 14 and faces Charlotte in Bloomington on Sept. 21.
Big Ten sets schedule for 2024 football season
For the first year of 18 teams, the Big Ten set aside its final weekend for traditional rivalries. They include Michigan-Ohio State, Indiana-Purdue, Wisconsin–Minnesota and Illinois–Northwestern plus the Iowa-Nebraska matchup on Black Friday. Washington and Oregon will play each other, too, while USC and UCLA face nonconference foes Notre Dame and Fresno State, respectively. With Penn State and Michigan State not playing each other, it meant there were a few changes on Thanksgiving weekend.
“At least for the first year, we wanted to make sure we maintain as much similarity to the traditional end of the season that we’ve had in the past,” Kenny said. “There have been years where Penn State and Michigan State didn’t play at the end of the year, but they actually ended with Penn State-Rutgers and Michigan State-Maryland on that final week of the season. So we kind of leaned into that quartet of schools to say if it can’t be Penn State-Michigan State and Rutgers versus Maryland, let’s at least keep those four together.”
USC-UCLA rotates between the season’s penultimate and final weekends depending on when the USC-Notre Dame game takes place in Los Angeles. The Trojans and Bruins will meet during the Nov. 23 weekend in 2024. The league helped shift the UCLA-Fresno State game to the final weekend to ensure UCLA didn’t play on 10 consecutive weeks.
Oregon and Washington traditionally end their regular seasons against Oregon State and Washington State, respectively, but the Ducks and Huskies will play each other in their Big Ten finale in 2024. But with uncertainty about whether the Civil War or Apple Cup will continue, the Big Ten created openings to give both schools that option.
“On the Oregon-Washington matchup, we were pretty upfront with the leadership of both schools to let them know that in our best-case scenario from the Big Ten perspective, we would love to have that game be at the end of the season,” Kenny said. “It lines up so well with the tradition and the rivalry of the other matchups on that weekend. But we also wanted to make sure that we understood where there might be some opportunities for them to still play those in-state rivals, if their considerations lined up that they needed to have that happen starting with 2024.”
The Big Ten left open the second-to-last weekend for both schools should either want to extend those historic series. After this fall, the Oregon-Oregon State series will have 127 editions while Washington-Washington State plays for the 114th time.
The Galloping Ghost
On Oct. 18, 1924, Illinois star halfback Red Grange helped defeat defending national champion Michigan by returning the opening kickoff 95 yards, then scoring on runs of 67, 56 and 44 yards, all in the game’s first 12 minutes. He added a fifth touchdown and passed for a sixth in a 39-14 rout. It took place the same day as Memorial Stadium’s official dedication.
On Oct. 19, 2024 — 100 years and one day after Grange’s legendary feat — the Wolverines will visit Memorial Stadium. Grange’s 12-foot, one-ton bronze statue stands tall outside the stadium’s west side, and the stadium’s entryway is known as “Grange Grove.”
“We didn’t force it and require it to land on this date, but we loaded the computer with some information that hopefully we would guide it to this date,” Kenny said. “So the fact that that’s almost to the day, 100 years later, in the same location, with the same teams participating was another cool little historical nugget that was achieved in this schedule as well.”
Fridays, Labor Day, Black Friday
When the Big Ten worked with Fox to secure funding for Washington and Oregon, the league agreed to move games to at least nine Friday nights starting in 2024.
Some venues won’t host Friday night games because of logistical challenges, but now that the schedule is released, discussions will take place on which games will move.
“We work collaboratively with the TV partners to understand which games are eligible to move to Friday based on the parameters that are in place, which games are non-negotiable — that they can’t leave Saturday because of the broadcast position — and the selection process,” Kenny said. “That will be over the next several weeks and hopefully not months. But something that we’re hopeful to get done here sooner than later is identify which of those games will be eligible to move to Friday.”
This year, the Big Ten played an early Sunday game between Rutgers and Northwestern on Labor Day weekend. Next year, a Sunday game will appear in prime time on NBC.
“The goal is to really capture every night of that Labor Day weekend short of the actual holiday on Monday,” Kenny said. “I think from a baseline perspective, it would be one game on Thursday, one game on Friday and then one game on Sunday in addition to the full slate on Saturday.”
Iowa and Nebraska have played annually on Black Friday since the Huskers joined the league in 2011. This year, Penn State-Michigan State became the second Black Friday game. It’s undetermined which game will join Iowa-Nebraska on Thanksgiving Friday in 2024.
This schedule was the third iteration of the 2024 layout. The first came out in 2019 when the Big Ten had 14 teams, then the second was unveiled in June for the 16-team version. With Washington and Oregon accepting invitations in August, it was challenging to shoehorn early-season conference matchups. But the league worked in Maryland at Michigan State in Week 2, which was in place in the original 14-team schedule.
“The two schools had built their nonconference opponents and when they were going to play them around the fact that they were going to have that early conference game as East Division opponents,” Kenny said.
Penn State with a home opener?
For the first time since pre-COVID, Kenny said, the Big Ten fully could control its schedule. Without divisions, it gave league brass leeway to adjust games and dates. And involving Penn State, the schedule makers responded to a perpetual complaint.
For eight straight seasons and 13 of the past 14 years, Penn State has opened Big Ten play on the road. In 2024, the Nittany Lions begin with two home games: Sept. 28 vs. Illinois and Oct. 5 vs. UCLA.
“It was very intentional,” Kenny said. “We had some great conversations with (athletic director) Pat Kraft along the way. He was always really great about providing Penn State’s perspective and letting us know that was important to their program and to their community.”
A look at Penn State’s 2024 schedule, including a brutal October
Bye after Bama
Wisconsin has a major nonconference game, playing Alabama on Sept. 14 at Camp Randall Stadium. The Big Ten inserted a bye between the Badgers’ game against the Crimson Tide and the Big Ten opener on Sept. 28 at USC.
“Having that second bye and the ability to maneuver in between two really important games for Wisconsin was something that on paper just presents a little bit more of a defensible outcome, as opposed to having those games in back-to-back weeks,” Kenny said.
Flex protect widens
The Big Ten was the first power conference to adopt a flex-protect scheduling plan with an unequal amount of annual rivalry games. The league kept 12, which gave Iowa three protected rivals, Penn State none and the remaining schools either one or two.
The ACC and Big 12 came out with multi-year schedules this week, and the ACC protected 16 series while the Big 12 kept only four. Among the power conferences, the SEC is the lone holdout on adopting a multi-year scheduling plan beyond 2024. The SEC currently is deadlocked between a nine-game schedule with three protected annual opponents or an eight-game schedule with one protected rival.
“It was really a nice kind of nod to the efforts of flex protect,” said Kenny, highlighting the other leagues copying elements of the Big Ten’s scheduling model, “We kind of went out on a limb and did something different. We’ve been confident and comfortable with the success that we think has been achieved, at least on paper. And now to see others start to implement that as well, I think it really makes us feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”
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